Ronan Farrow. (Image: AP/Invision/Evan Agostini)

Three years into the Trump presidency, the US media are still grappling with the big question: what are we doing here? Transcribing the words of the powerful? Or holding them to account? 

How US journalists answer those questions inevitably shapes how the Australian media come to understand its role today.

This week, those questions kindled the fire that’s lit up US media Twitter in a journalistically no-holds barred clash between The New York Times media columnist (and former BuzzFeed News chief) Ben Smith and The New Yorker Pulitzer Prize-winning Me Too star Ronan Farrow.

(In a reminder of how small — and elite — America’s media is, both Smith and Farrow grew up on Manhattan’s upper west side. Both attended Yale.)

Smith punched first with his 3500-word weekend column “Is Ronan Farrow too good to be true?”, questioning Farrow’s reporting about Harvey Weinstein (for which he shared the Pulitzer with the NYT’s Megan Tuohy and Jodi Kantor) and former NBC presenter Matt Lauer.

Farrow blocked: “I stand by my reporting”. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple tagged in to support Smith, tweeting: “Muscular debunking”.

The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyou, in turn, crashed into the ring, broken bottle in hand: “Journalistic high-mindedness from ⁦@benyt⁩, the guy who pubbed the Trump dossier without fact-checking a shred of it”.

Me Too casualty Lauer ventured onto digital news Mediate with the plaintive, “Why Ronan Farrow is indeed too good to be true“.  Farrow’s editor David Remnick worked the refs from his corner: “Working alongside fact checkers, lawyers and other editorial staff members at The New Yorker, he achieved something remarkable …We’re proud to publish him.”

Ring-side, Politico’s Jack Shafer cheered: “There is something wonderfully cleansing about a full-bore @nytimes vs. @NewYorker fight.” Smith’s WaPo counterpart Margaret Sullivan noted “how thoroughly male this contretemps is, especially given the #MeToo subject matter”.

Beneath the punch and counter-punch, the debate canvasses important issues for the job journalism needs to be doing right now. It suggests that much of journalism is still coming to terms not just with the how-to but with the why of Me Too reporting.

The journalistic revolution wrought by the Weinstein (and subsequent) stories was not the moral fable of the fall of once-powerful men. It was that light-bulb recognition — flicked on by the election of a serial harasser as US president — that workplace harassment and assault was newsworthy, that reporting it was a too-long delayed imperative of our times.

Journalists have had to bring their tempered tools of truth-seeking to this inherently secretive world, including, Smith says, the fundamental principles  of corroboration and rigorous disclosure. (Worth noting that the more spectacular failures of Australian Me Too arose from weak pre-publication corroboration.)

In the US, these tools meant journalists clashed with political campaigners over how — or whether — to report the allegations by Tara Reade against US presidential candidate Joe Biden, as canvassed by, among others, Vox’s Laura McGann.

Smith picks up an earlier criticism of Farrow’s book: that it slides around this challenge by resorting to “new journalism on the sly”. The craft’s continued discomfort with the inherent slyness of fiction’s show-don’t-tell re-creation of private conversations is why it remains tagged as “new” some 50 years after Tom Wolfe declared the term.

But the enduring question raised by Smith’s column lies in his equally sly phrasing “of a kind of resistance journalism that has thrived in the age of Donald Trump” where “the old rules of fairness and open-mindedness can seem more like impediments than essential journalistic imperatives”.

The inherent sneer has been grasped colourfully by the left (“a toxic, corrosive, and still-vibrant Trump-era pathology” according to The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald) and eagerly by the right with Murdoch’s The Wall Street Journal pompously declaring, “even The New York Times now recognises the problem”.

It can best be read as a more provocative up-date of WaPo editor Marty Baron’s 2017 take on the journalistic challenges of Trump: “We’re not at war. We’re at work”. Not wrong, but not wholly right either.

However, “resistance journalism” has already been too easily read as an attack on journalism that holds power to account.

As governments in the US and Australia take an increasingly flexible approach to truth, that accountability is a job the media cannot resist.

What should the media’s role be in these times? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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